As a body image advocate and a strong voice within the movement for more-inclusive yoga, I am always cautious of the way in which speaking of my own experiences affects other yoga practitioners and teachers. As yoga professionals, it is our job to consider how our words and actions might influence those around us, and particularly those who look up to us for guidance and reassurance. We need to exercise responsibility when we publicly endorse people and practices, as the choices we make can lead either to inclusion and healthy discussions, or to a detrimental exclusion and proliferation of dangerous practices that cause more harm than good. I believe it is important to engage in critical conversations about how we see yoga evolving, and how yoga can be relevant in a world that desperately needs to foster inclusion.
When we seek inclusion and unity, we are inevitably required to dive deep into the uncomfortable conversations that gather around topics such as yoga and body image, representation of diversity within mainstream yoga culture, and how the images we choose to celebrate affect the perception of yoga practice and its benefits. All of these issues intersect in the yoga celebrity.
The creation and elevation of the “yoga celebrity” is an ongoing problem within mainstream yoga culture. It’s pretty easy to see that we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture (I know I shake my head each time I hear Kim Kardashian's name), and we seem to thrive on the distraction created by the world of glamour and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. This obsession has made its way into the practices and perceptions of mainstream yoga in the West—and with detrimental effect.
One well-known mainstream publication has the power to create a Yoga Celebrity (aka Yogalebrity), simply by featuring the individual on the cover of their magazine. After researching over 36 issues of this particular magazine, I have come to recognize the criteria for landing the coveted cover shot: Models are typically young, conventionally attractive (resembling supermodels), hypermobile, thin, able-bodied, cisgender, straight, and predominantly white. If you are a person of color, you will not be represented there. Something else that has always made me question the authenticity of this mainstream publication is a lack of South Asian representation. Given the origins of yoga practice, it strikes me as problematic that you wouldn’t feature a South Asian teacher on the cover, or offer more content that discusses the cultural origins of the practice. If you have power to catapult teachers to celebrity status, why wouldn’t you choose a teacher whose very culture created the practice? Just a thought.
The rise to celebrity status has been democratized by social media, however, and we now have the power to either create our own authentic fame, or award it to others. Our social media accounts are public platforms that can help us project our own messages, without depending on the traditional vehicles of mainstream media. In this new model, we have the ability to influence who (and what) becomes relevant. This being the case, we now must reconsider who we determine to be “expert” teachers, and on what basis we grant this status. I believe in the work of many incredible teachers who contribute in a positive way to Western yoga culture. I also believe there are celebrity teachers whose popularity is dangerous to the true practice of yoga.
We are invited to ogle at a larger body’s ability to conquer unrealistic postures, while ignoring the real body-positive discussion (which, news flash, isn’t about what the body can and can’t do, but rather, the inherent magic of the body itself).
For the most part, yoga-celebrity status is attained by teachers who either a) fit a Westernized standard of beauty, or b) can effectively contort his/her body into shapes that are unrealistic and unattainable for the average practitioner. This second point is illustrated in the rise of the “fat yoga teacher” as a specific subtype of yoga celebrity. This phenomenon has mainstream publications objectifying teachers in larger bodies by selectively including images of them in highly contorted physical postures, while labeling those images with a “body positive” tagline. We are invited to ogle at a larger body’s ability to conquer unrealistic postures, while ignoring the real body-positive discussion (which, news flash, isn’t about what the body can and can’t do, but rather, the inherent magic of the body itself).
Whether it’s on the cover of a magazine or in the messages we publish on our social media channels, we seem to be sold on a look or an idea—and we buy it. Our judgments are not based on an individual’s education or hard work within the yoga community. Instead, we continue to value genetic privilege and the ability to commodify an ancient practice, much to the delight of advertisers everywhere.
It is time to recognize that what we see in both mainstream yoga culture and within our mainstream yoga publications is a reflection of what we see in the world at large. It is the same dynamic of valuing certain people over others. It is the perpetuation of discrimination through the practices and principles we deem important, and those we strive to emulate. It is the “spiritualization” of implicit and complicit bias. What I mean by this is that our unconsciousness has allowed mainstream yoga culture to institutionalize bias by ascribing to it more “spiritual” traits. We are constantly seeing images of spirituality that reflect the current cultural bias toward thin, white, young, conventionally attractive yoga practitioners executing impossible yoga poses that are deemed visually perfect, and therefore “authentic.” These images are usually accompanied by a Rumi quote or a passage from the Bhagavad Gita to ensure they are perceived as extra-spiritual. Yoga spirituality continues to be commodified as an idealized image of beauty and able-bodiedness.
The ideals and values perpetuated by the existence of yoga celebrity status allow the continued valuing of certain people and yoga postures, with a concomitant exclusionary and dangerous devaluing of other people (and postures).
As the commodification of yoga continues, we see a pervasive disrespect for a true connection to humanity, which is the deeper goal of yoga practice. We even find the idea of connection to be entirely absent among some practitioners and in various media that popularize yoga. Yoga professionals have a responsibility to serve the highest good of all individuals, rather than their own interests and careers. But they’re now being driven by the desire to obtain “yoga celebrity” status. If in the attempt to “stay relevant” within the yoga celebrity model we allow our personal social media platforms to focus on attention-getting, extreme flexibility (by posting photos of ourselves or others in yoga postures that are inaccessible to the average practitioner), we give away our personal power. By failing to create an alternative perception of yoga that will counter the one that has until now dominated mainstream publications, we deny ourselves the opportunity to strengthen our connection to humanity.
Why is yoga celebrity status so enticing? And how can we put an end to this phenomenon in order to serve the community by teaching inclusive yoga practices? Popular yoga teachers need to shift the focus. Our focus needs to be placed on opportunities for practitioners to connect to one another through practices that allow them to better understand themselves. We cannot continue to make yoga practice about expensive clothes, premium mats, and difficult arm balances. The discussions within the yoga community need to return to the yamas and niyamas—and to accessible asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.
We practice yoga to learn about elevating and evolving our consciousness. So can we please get back to connecting with our humanity?